It’s hard to blame consumers for being confused by the number of eco-labels on products these days. Fair Trade certified coffee is probably the most familiar seal to many consumers. Fair Trade is primarily concerned with alleviating poverty through greater equity in international trade. Fair Trade is governed in most of the world by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). In the U.S., it is governed by Fair Trade USA, which resigned from the international system in early 2012.
Many people assume, however, that Fair Trade certification standards also include robust environmental standards. This assumption is promoted by some Fair Trade organizations themselves.
For example, Fair Trade USA environmental benefits web page has stated that “over 80% of the Fair Trade certified coffee in the U.S. is also shade-grown.” Shade grown by whose standards? According to the most recent (2006) statistics I could find, only about 40% of the Fair Trade coffee imported into the U.S. is also certified by Rainforest Alliance and/or Smithsonian Bird-Friendly .
In fact, Fair Trade certification has no criteria related to growing coffee under shade, it does not require organic certification, it contains no guidelines for management of native or non-native species, it does not require any inventory of wildlife or prohibit hunting or trafficking in animals. These are all included in the criteria for shade certification by Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (Bird-Friendly) and/or Rainforest Alliance.
Let’s take a look at the Fair Trade environmental standards.
The Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) is the association of producer networks and national labeling initiatives. FLO develops and reviews the Fair Trade standards. There are two sets of standards: overarching generic standards, and standards specific to each type of product. Let’s look at the standards which specifically address preserving and protecting the environment. Currently, Fair Trade USA is using FLO standards, but is developing new ones that will apply to independent producers and estates.
Here is a summary of the generic producer standards for small producers (which apply to coffee farmers) that address preserving and protecting the environment (updated January 2011 version):
- No plant material can be collected from protected areas or propagated illegally.
- Harvesting of wild products from natural areas must be done sustainably and human impact minimized.
- Co-ops should have environmental and land use plans and maintain records pertaining to land, water, and chemical use.
- Co-ops must recognize conservation and buffer areas and not cultivate within them or apply agrochemicals.
- Virgin forest can’t be cultivated, unless an exception is granted.
- In areas of low biodiversity or similar degraded areas, co-op members should plant trees or “encourage” regeneration of native flora.
- Co-ops should promote farm diversity, including reforestation or shade implementation, “as is practical” and “progress should be made over time.”
- No use of chemicals on a prohibited list.
- Agrochemicals must be labeled, stored, and used as directed.
- Use of permitted herbicides must be justified.
- Producers are expected to seek less toxic alternatives to and try to reduce volumes of agrochemicals to the extent possible.
- Waste should be reduced, reused, recycled and composted in an appropriate manner.
- Soil erosion should be managed, soil fertility should be maintained.
- Water should be managed efficiently and to avoid contamination and depletion of resources.
- Genetically modified organisms are prohibited.
These are indeed pretty generic. There are few specific criteria and virtually no quantifiable or measurable rules. There is little regarding habitat preservation. The words “birds” and “wildlife” appear nowhere in the standards. “Biodiversity” and “habitat” are mentioned a total of six times in 31 pages, none as part of quantitative criteria. If you think I’ve oversimplified, you can read the standards yourself (PDF), or the summary at Green America.
I expected the product standard for coffee to have more precise restrictions or environmental standards relating to birds and wildlife. Here’s what the 2009 document said:
“There are no additional environmental standards specific to coffee producers.”
In the 2011 version (PDF), there is no mention of environmental standards.
There are plenty of worthwhile things about Fair Trade certification. The environmental guidelines, however general, are better than none at all and in many cases undoubtedly result in better environmental conditions. I strongly believe that reducing poverty also helps prevent environmental exploitation, and Fair Trade has improved the lives of thousands of farmers. Because Fair Trade coffee is grown by small producers, it is often grown in a sustainable manner.
But just to clarify: Fair Trade certification alone does not automatically mean or guarantee that rigorous environmental standards were followed, or that the coffee was grown under shade. For that you’ll have to look for an additional seal or seals, or have detailed information about the specific origin to assess growing conditions.
 Giovannucci, D., Liu, P. and A. Byers. 2008. Adding value: certified coffee trade in North America. In Pascal Liu (ed.). Value-adding Standards in the North American Food Market – Trade Opportunities in Certified Products for Developing Countries. FAO, Rome. Available online (PDF).